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The American Laudato Si: Wendell Berry and the Great Environmental Compromise

06/24/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

The Vatican released Francis' first much anticipated Encyclical "Laudato Si" ("Praise Be to You") last week. In the document and the subsequent media conference at the Vatican, scientists and theologians of varying traditions intoned dire warnings about the limits of a science-based culture, and called on the world to recover a pre-Modern respect for nature that harmonizes human advances with natural integrity.

In the letter, Pope Francis holds up the 12th Century saint Francis of Assisi as a model of environmental and spiritual stewardship who "helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human." The pontiff's diagnosis of the current world as an "immense pile of filth" victim of a "throwaway culture" comes as a study by Stanford, Princeton, and UC Berkeley, highlights the most rapid species extinction rate since the dinosaurs.The New York Times echoed this sentiment in their coverage of a new scientific report from Great Britain highlighting likely increases in drought exposures (factor of three), floods (factor of four) and heatwaves (factor of twelve).

Outlets on both sides of the climate debate have characterized the letter in political terms. The Washington Post reported that the Encyclical was a sort of "Waterloo" for Vatican conservatives. Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, calling into question the Catholic social tradition as well as the pontiff's economic credentials, takes issue with Francis' critique of modern growth-centered economic models.

A religious leader from the "end of the world", the head of an institution that has often found itself at odds with the U.S. religious, political, and social project of liberal democracy, might find himself an easy target for the skeptical U.S. entrepreneur. But are Francis' ideas really that foreign to the U.S. consciousness? Do his critiques of modernity ring true only in the long European tradition of Catholic Social Teaching? How might non-Catholic Americans relate to the message the Pope issued?

As it turns out, a US author from Kentucky came to Francis' same conclusions a little over thirty years ago. Award winning author Wendell Berry* advocated in his 1983 essay "Two Economies" for a system that would prioritize the spiritual "Kingdom of God" without neglecting economical necessities.

Berry has often criticized electronic communication and modern agricultural techniques. That said, at a more universal level, this essay advocated for a practical harmony that both shaped the environment through human invention and allowed the environment to provide practical aids and limits on human development. Berry used topsoil as an example. He argued that industrialists overlooked complex ecological systems by replacing the double function of topsoil, water retention and drainage, with machines and dams that performed merely one or the other task, risking eroded ecosystems. In short, in the name of efficiency, technocrats had overlooked and reduced nature's efficiency. Turning to the ironic belief that we can or ought to control nature, Berry asked: "What is to be the fate of self-control in an economy that encourages and rewards unlimited selfishness? (68)"

Berry's 1982 essay "Getting Along With Nature" rejected the dichotomy of "pure" nature and "artificial" development:

People cannot live apart from nature; that is the first principle of the conservationists. And yet, people cannot live in nature without changing it. But this is true of all creatures; they depend upon nature, and they change it. What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and upon their places.(7)

Berry illustrated that while humans could ruin the environment through a divorce of humanity and nature, human engagement with nature might improve it, if scaled correctly. He pointed to an indigenous community, the Papago in Mexico, that, through irrigation and regular agriculture, had formed a type of oasis that attracted birds. The Park Service in Arizona had banned the same nation from their traditional farming methods on an ecological preserve.This restriction ironically reduced the bird sanctuary's bird and plant biodiversity.

Two religious humans, one the leader of more than a billion Catholics, and the other, a small Kentucky farmer, both recognize that nature and humanity are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent. If you are suspicious of the Argentine cleric in white's credentials or relevance to the U.S.' conscience, try lending your ears to the Kentucky farmer. Regardless, the U.S. public and the world ignore our dependence at its continuing peril.

*Essays taken from the following anthology: Wendell Berry, Home Economics (1987).